FedEx West Coast Hub Goes Solar

FedEx Corp. flipped the switch this week in Oakland, Calif., turning its whole West Coast hub into a solar-generating machine and casting a nice glow on a hometown partnership.

FedEx Corp. flipped the switch this week in Oakland, Calif., turning its whole West Coast hub into a solar-generating machine and casting a nice glow on a hometown partnership.

The 5,769 panels silently powering the 81,000-square-foot hub were assembled here at Sharp Corp.'s American manufacturing plant, now within weeks of being the largest solar-manufacturing plant in the nation.

It's been a meteoric rise.

"We started a solar line in Memphis in October 2003," said Marc Cortez, head of marketing for Sharp Solar. "Last November, we doubled our capacity to up to 40 megawatts."

By the end of the month, Sharp expects to have another assembly line running here, kicking production up close to 60 megawatts to feed a domestic market growing around 40 percent a year.

"If we have another power outage on the grid like we had last year and the year before, I anticipate a lot more business," said E.C. Jones, vice president of human resources.

One megawatt equals 1 million watts. In late 2004, the United States was producing 730 megawatts of solar power, enough to power 300,000 homes, said Noah Kaye, spokesman for the Solar Energy Industry Association.

"Globally, the industry's been showing 35 percent annual growth since 2001."

The United States ranks third in production behind Japan and Germany. By 2010, U.S. demand is expected to exceed 300 megawatts.

Sharp is the world's largest producer of photovoltaic panels, which convert sunshine directly to electricity.

The FedEx project required 300,000 glass photocells, which were shipped to Memphis from Japan via FedEx.

"It was quite a delight for us to be delivering our own sun," said Mitch Jackson, managing director for FedEx's environmental programs.

The panels sitting flat on the hub's roof will supply 80 percent of its electricity during peak demand periods, enough power to run 900 homes.

The unused electricity will be returned to the California power grid for general use.

"If solar makes sense in the Bay area, it can make sense in a lot of places," Jackson said. "But the industry needs to grow."

In less than 10 years, the Oakland system will pay for itself, he said, thanks in part to California's energy tax rebates, which trimmed more than $4 million off installation costs.

"Our goal was to supply this hub with clean, stable and renewable power."

Sharp started in Memphis in 1979 making color TVs. Today, its 850 workers turn out 900,000 microwave ovens a year and toner cartridges for copier machines.

The solar division is the fastest growing. Its 200 employees will swell to up to 300 by the end of the month.

"I would say we're receiving about 15 calls a day from people inquiring where they can purchase or talk to someone about solar," Jones said.

Sharp located its solar plant here to be close to the East Coast demand.

"Solar energy doesn't necessarily follow the sun," Cortez said. "It follows the money, wherever there is progressive legislation."

California and New Jersey have the most solar projects, but 39 states, including Tennessee, have some program in place, he said.

The biggest boom now may be the energy bill, which President Bush signed in July.

It offers homeowners up to $2,000 in tax rebates for installing solar electric or solar water heating systems.

"Homeowners haven't had any kind of federal support for solar power for 20 years," Kaye said.

"Installing solar is one of the biggest steps a homeowner can take to reduce the U.S.'s reliance on foreign sources of energy."

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News